It’s been awhile since I’ve read a novel with a male protagonist. I’m more drawn to books with female heroines. Am I girly? Maybe. I guess I just feel like I can relate to the female protagonists better. That said, some of the best books I’ve read have male protagonists. This is one of them.
City of Thieves is narrated by Lev Beniov, an awkward 17-year-old Russian living in Lenningrad during World War II. Lev is arrested for looting the body of a dead Nazi solider. In jail he meets Kolya, a charismatic literature student who has been accused of deserting the Russian army. Lev expects that they will be executed, and is surprised when he and Koyla are given a mission instead. A colonel orders them to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake, an impossible task in a city that is starving.
As Lev and Koyla search for the eggs, they encounter cannibals, prostitutes in distress and cruel Nazis. They bond through a series of adventures and narrow escapes. In many respects, Lev and Koyla are polar opposites. One is pragmatic; the other idealistic. One is a patriot; the other quietly rebellious against his government. City of Thieves is definitely a bromance; the friendship between Lev and Koyla is both comic and heartwarming.
The book itself is also a bit of a mystery. Is it a novel or a biography or something between the two? In a NY Times book review, Boris Fishman notes: “In a recent interview, Benioff said the novel’s first chapter was pure invention — that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States. But in the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his ‘patience with my late-night phone calls’ about the blockade. The final version of the book doesn’t carry that acknowledgment. What gives?”
Whether is pure fiction or based on reality, City of Thieves relates important truths about a terrifying period in history. I highly recommend it.